MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Better Angels’ Sweeps, Panders, And Obscures

The-Better-Angels-Review

Film: The Better Angels
Directed by: A.J. Edwards
Starring: Jason Clarke, Brit Marling, Diane Kruger

A quote from Abraham Lincoln himself opens the film as such, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” The Better Angels, the new indie project by producer Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line) and protégé director A.J. Edwards, scantly explores patriarchal and matriarchal issues and how they form us into adults. Akin to Malick’s projects, the camera sweeps across the wilderness of Indiana in 1817 with an intricate eye. Its black and white aesthetic hurts the beauty that could come out of the narrative, though. Lincoln biopics are aplenty and much like the others, this one doesn’t quite capture an important phase in the president’s life successfully.

The Better Angels follows honest Abe (Braydon Denney) at the ripe young age of eight years old up until the age of eleven. Specifically, the story follows Abe and his upbringing in the harsh wilderness of Indiana in such a young time for the country. Tom and Nancy Lincoln (Jason Clarke and Brit Marling) are two different souls doing best to raise their three sons – Tom being the more drunk and physical kind of life teacher, of course.

The Better Angels likes to study a few interesting things whilst following Abe’s upbringing. Don’t expect the famous historical figure to pick up a top hat as booming chords drown out any sense of subtlety, this isn’t a superhero movie. As is with most Malick-ian projects, the dialogue takes a back seat to characters staring off at the sky and twirling through fields of wheat. The kicker here is that Abe’s reactionary process to his parents’ “tough love” is barely explored. Nature’s indifference to man, the manifest destiny-esque qualities of the soul, and recovering from grief are all things thrown into the half-boiled stew of a plot.

The actors aren’t the ones to fault here, though. Jason Clarke, who time and time again has delivered great performances (think Zero Dark Thirty), is great as Tom Lincoln. His drunkenness is never forced, always leading to somewhere. Better yet, his character ends up being a vital person to fully understanding how Abe grew to be the man he was. Brit Marling is also great as Nancy Lincoln. Even though she vacates the story early on, her ramblings about the strong person her son will grow to be provides for some vital context that most of the story doesn’t end up giving. Her spoken word about how her son was not fit for farming and unintelligent work gets stretched pretty thin by the time the credits roll.

Diane Kruger, a revelation in Inglourious Basterds and criminally underused in Troy, shows up to play Sarah, the second wife of Thomas. Again, Kruger tries to carry as much thematic weight on her back as possible. Sarah is another woman knowledgeable of Abe’s smarts and is in total disagreement with the way Thomas treats him. Abe himself is quite good as well, with the material given to him. Braydon Denney doesn’t talk as much as he walks around with the curiosity of an infant, clearly eager to learn about all that the wilderness can’t teach him.

Director/writer A.J. Edwards emerges as a promising visual artist with The Better Angels. Some of the images he captured are striking and completely steeped in the time when the film takes place. The old west is bleak, unforgiving, and Edwards knows exactly that. The black and white aesthetic that Edwards employs on the other hand only hinders how his style may complement the substance he puts up on the screen. The vast expanses of farm land, log cabins, and beginning of civilizations all could have benefited from a stronger color palette.

The Better Angels may not quite capture the early years of President Lincoln as well as the heavy subject matter but the cast and some striking visuals makes this one a decent watch. Remember the name A.J. Edwards though, for I think we may be seeing more of his work soon. After all, if Terrence Malick took him under his wing, he probably had good reason.

GRADE: C

Review written by Sam Cohen (follow him on Twitter!)

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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